In 2013, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced their plans to all but eliminate trans fats from processed foods, citing a CDC statistic that the elimination of partially hydrogenated oils from the food supply could prevent more than 10,000 heart attacks and thousands of deaths every year. Up until that point, trans fats enjoyed their so-called “GRAS” status: “Generally Recognized As Safe.” How did these killer fats get labeled as safe?
Who decides what’s safe? Currently, a “generally recognized as safe” determination is made when the manufacturer of a food substance evaluates the safety of the substance themselves and concludes that the use of the substance is safe. In other words, the company that manufactures the substance gets to determine if it is safe or not. This approach is commonly referred to as ”GRAS self-determination.” To make matters worse, not only do companies not have to inform the public, they don’t even have to inform the FDA. A company may voluntarily tell the FDA they just came up with a new food additive that they’ve decided is safe, but are not required to do so.
The cumulative result is that there are an estimated 6,000 current affirmative safety decisions which allow for more than an estimated 10,000 substances to be used in food (See Who Determines if Safe are Safe?). In addition, an estimated 1,000 manufacturer safety decisions are never reported to FDA or the public. “Manufacturers and a trade association made the remaining decisions without FDA review by concluding on their own that the substances that they themselves were selling were safe.”
While manufacturers are not required to notify the FDA of a “safe determination,” sometimes they do voluntarily notify the agency. From these notifications, researchers have been able to see which individuals companies select to make these determinations. Of the 451 GRAS notifications voluntarily submitted to the FDA, 22.4% were made by someone directly employed by the company; 13.3% were made by someone directly employed by a firm hand-picked by the company; and 64.3% were made by a panel hand-picked by the corporation or the firm the corporation hired. Are you doing the math? Yes, that means zero safety decisions were made independently.
An astonishing 100% of the members of expert panels worked directly or indirectly for the companies that manufactured the food additive in question. And those are just the ones the food companies let the FDA know about. The companies also used the same in-the-pocket rent-a-scientist “experts” over and over, leading food industry watchdog Marion Nestle to ask“How is it possible that the FDA permits manufacturers to decide for themselves whether their food additives are safe?” It may be because many of the companies providing our daily food are corporate giants with “political muscles that national governments would envy.” PepsiCo alone spent more than $9 million in a single year to lobby Congress. The fact that food additives like trans fats have been allowed to kill thousands of Americans year after year comes as less of a surprise to those who realize that “three of Washington’s largest lobbying firms reportedly now work for the food industry.”